Who’s the greatest modern Catholic poet? In a way, an absurd question. It’s like asking, who’s the greatest: Bach or Mozart? Francis or Thérèse? Just thank God for them all. In realms of the spirit, competition is misplaced.
Still, it’s important to identify the Catholic contenders in modern poetry because poetry can be a path to transcendence. And we know many people in our day believe, despite the evidence, that Catholics “don’t do” science or art.
There’s Gerard Manley Hopkins, a very great poet indeed. Or if you stretch “Catholic,” there are the Anglo-Catholics: T.S. Eliot or W. H. Auden.
In France there’s Charles Péguy, but he’s more a prophet like Dostoyevsky. A great artist, but embroiled in political questions that can take you from poetry back to newspaper stories.
We need holidays of the spirit that provide a foretaste of a realm not confined to getting and spending, liberals and conservatives, or even great moral questions – because someday all that will be past.
I believe the greatest modern Catholic poet, and the most unknown, even to Catholics, is Paul Claudel (1868-1955). His family was modest, his father a local government official. A strong creative streak was hidden somewhere because his sister Camille was a gifted sculptor and student, then mistress, of Rodin – but that’s a story for another day. Claudel studied for a diplomatic career, but was also attracted to poetry. He succeeded spectacularly in both realms.
Some of his predecessors – Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud – were poetes maudits (“cursed poets”), who more than dabbled in sin and occultism. Yet all finished as Catholics. Rimbaud in particular – who stopped writing in his teens and is today sometime a patron saint of self-indulgent rock musicians – helped bring Claudel to belief.
Partly because of the marvelous realm beyond smug modern materialism that Claudel discovered in Rimbaud, he found himself in Notre Dame of Paris on Christmas Day1886 during Vespers: “The children in the choir were singing what I later learned was the Magnificat. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed.”
He passed through several moral problems and it took him a while to become fully Catholic, but his faith never wavered. Nor was it humorless or conventional. Even writing about the Virgin Mary, he could joke that she doesn’t listen to him, but she listens to Christ, who is listening to him: “The Virgin of Brangues is a Virgin that functions/ I have put myself into a system that’s fully functional.”
His literary career took off like a rocket, despite the anti-Catholic bent of French men of letters, as did his diplomatic career. His first posts were in New York and Boston, followed by stints as ambassador in China, Japan, and Brazil. When he was sent to Washington (1927-33), Time magazine put a picture of the world famous poet/ambassador on its cover. In Washington, he wrote a brief libretto exploring the spirit of Columbus.
He was one of these very rare and exotic birds who lived two lives. A conscientious diplomat, until he retired, he set aside only one hour a day for writing. But what an hour! He churned out plays, poems, opera librettos, poetic reflections on the countries he visited, all animated by a vitality impossible to ignore. (In retirement, he wrote 2000 pages of commentary on the Bible.)
Though often abroad, he was a strong presence in mainstream French culture and was elected to the French Academy. Darius Milhaud, his secretary in Brazil, and Arthur Honegger – two distinguished French composers who testified to Claudel’s keen sense of drama – set several texts to music. When his play about Joan of Arc, Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, was performed in Paris, it starred Ingrid Bergmann.
The work roams brilliantly over vast themes: love and its byways, Catholic historical subjects, and, in The Satin Slipper – a three-part, seven-hour epic – he traces the voyages of discovery to the new world, placing them in a complex love story linked to God’s providential ordering of the vagaries and reversals of human history.
For me, his two most striking works are The Tidings Brought to Mary and the Five Great Odes. The first resembles a mystery play, a simple drama set in a medieval French village that somehow branches into eternal realities that continually intermingle with the everyday. By the end, Violaine, a young woman of deep wisdom exiled to a leper colony, mysteriously cures a leper and brings her sister’s dead baby back to life – in ways that fascinate without putting off non-Catholics.
Her former fiancée comes and tells her how unhappy he is. She says simply:
No one ever promised you happiness, work, that’s all that anyone asks of you.
Inquire of the ancient earth and she will always reply to you with bread and wine.
Then there are the Five Great Odes where he doesn’t describe but makes you feel the Spirit at work in the great symphony of the world and in poetic inspiration. “The Muse who is Grace” explains the magic:
The words that I use,
Are everyday words, and are not the same!
You will not find any rhymes in my verse, or any tricks. They are
your own phrases. But there’s no phrase of yours that I don’t know how to remake!
These flowers are your flowers and you say that you don’t recognize them.
And these feet are your feet, but look how I walk on the sea and
how I tread the sea’s waters in triumph!
We often lament these days the lack of great Catholic artists, but we neglect the ones who can still speak to us. The Spirit will inspire others in due time. Meanwhile, why neglect those with the gift of linking heaven and earth, who remind us:
For things and for poems, there is but one way of being new, and that is to be true; there is only one way of being young, and that is to be eternal.